×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Why Understanding Fans is the New Superpower (Guest Column)

I completely admit it.  I’m obsessed with fandom.

When my daughter turned 13, and my patience with her teen attitude was absolutely depleted, fandom stepped in to help. At that point, almost the only thing she would talk to me about was a show that she and her friends had discovered on Netflix, the CW’s “Supernatural.” She would enthusiastically recount whole episodes to me, one tiny detail at a time. Finally, she asked me to watch the pilot with her so I could understand the basics firsthand.  Since that day, we have watched every episode together – 232 to date (please don’t judge), attended one of the show’s conventions (and have tickets to another one), bought matching t-shirts (and phone cases), and shared countless show-based memes, videos and crafting ideas with one another (sigil cookies, anyone?). More than anything, we’ve found a new language, a way to communicate and connect through the show when our previous mode was failing us.

But my appreciation for fandom isn’t just personal.

As an anthropologist working in the entertainment industry, I’ve spent a great deal of time over the past decade conducting research with fans of one thing or another, from iconic comic brands and heroic space adventures, to immersive dramas and adult animation, to game shows and slot machines, to professional sports and video games. Regardless of what form their fandom takes, fans are my favorite types of consumers to learn from. Deeply knowledgeable, forthcoming with information, and passionate about the topic, fans make great teachers.

Over the last two years running the Research and Insights team at Troika, I’ve watched many of our clients come to similar conclusions about the importance – and value – of fans and fandom. Many of them have shifted their language, now targeting “fans” instead of “viewers” or “audiences.” Marketing strategies are increasingly crafted to drive not just breadth but depth of engagement. And the conversation has in large part moved from how to “manage” fans to how to “relate” to fans, even learn from them.

Why the shift?

In short, it’s digital empowerment – from streaming content to connecting through social media to creating fan works. When we became capable of consuming, connecting and creating on our own terms, with access to multitudes of others who share our passion for a show, movie, book, story, character, sport, band, artist, video game, brand, product, hobby, etc., the power of fandom began to show. In research we conducted last September, 85% of those surveyed reported being fans of something – 97% in the 18-24 age range. And when we define ourselves as fans, we do more – we watch more, share more, buy more, evangelize more, participate more, help more.*

Yet, for all its power, there are many things we don’t really understand about fandom. Why do some stories, characters, experiences, and brands give rise to strong fandom and not others? Can someone go from just liking something to becoming a true fan? How is fandom born, sustained and fractured within the individual? How does it spread and reproduce socially? What sparks, sustains, strengthens and weakens fan communities? What makes fandom the same no matter what form it takes? And what makes it different depending upon what form it takes?

The answers to these fundamental questions have real implications for our businesses, from programming to marketing to corporate social responsibility. They may also offer a new paradigm for organizing audiences and even modeling the business of entertainment.

So, my team – a mix of anthropologists and “fanthropologists” – is out to answer these questions. For the next 12 months, we will be embarking on a year-long study on fandom. Using a variety of research methods, both qualitative and quantitative, we will be studying fans of all kinds including fans of entertainment, sports, video games, music, celebrities and digital influencers. We’ll learn about the big events and the everyday practices of fandom; we’ll engage deeply with fans over extended periods through digital ethnography and take a broad quantitative snapshot at one specific moment; we’re talking directly with fans and observing them passively (in public forums both digital and in-person); we’re reading relevant academic research and scanning the mainstream headlines.

And while we’re admittedly nerdy enough to do all of this for the fun of learning about something so fascinating, we’re doing it because we need to. Because in business – especially in the rapidly changing business of entertainment – we need to understand the deepest forms of value we create for people if we ever want to fully translate that value into stock prices, dividends, and paychecks. Call me a dreamer, but we may even find ourselves deriving greater meaning from our work.

The comic book writer Kelly Sue DeConnick once told an interviewer how scores of fans had emailed her photos of their tattoos — designs patterned on her fictional heroine’s logo. To explain their motivation, she quoted a friend’s pithy comment: “You don’t get that tattoo because you are a fan of something in the book,” it went. “You get that tattoo because that book is a fan of something in you.”

How different will our businesses look when we understand how to purposefully create that kind of value for people?

Susan Kresnicka is a cultural anthropologist.  Along with her team at Troika’s Research and Insights Group, she just launched a yearlong, multimodal study of fandom funded by a group of major broadcasters. 

*Troika quantitative survey conducted September, 2015.  N=385, ages 18-80, U.S. sample.

 

More Voices

  • Contract Placeholder Business WGA ATA Agent

    WGA, Agents Face Tough Issues on New Franchise Pact (Column)

    The Writers Guild of America and the major talent agencies are seven weeks away from a deadline that could force film and TV writers to choose between their agents and their union. This is a battle that has been brewing for a year but few in the industry saw coming until a few weeks ago. [...]

  • FX Confronts Streaming Thanks to Disney

    Kicking and Screaming, FX Is Forced to Confront Future in the Stream (Column)

    During his network’s presentation at the winter Television Critics Assn. press tour, FX chief John Landgraf made waves — and headlines — by mounting perhaps his most direct criticism yet of Netflix. Landgraf, whose briefings to the press tend to rely heavily on data about the volume of shows with which FX’s competitors flood the [...]

  • Longtime TV Editor Recalls Working for

    How a Bad Director Can Spoil the Show (Guest Column)

    I have been blessed with editing some of TV’s greatest shows, working with some of the industry’s greatest minds. “The Wonder Years,” “Arrested Development,” “The Office,” “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies” and, most recently, “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” I have earned an Emmy, ACE Eddie Awards, and many nominations. But whatever kudos I’ve received, over my [...]

  • Stock market Stock buyback

    Stock Buybacks Leave Firms Without Funds to Invest in Future (Column)

    Corporate giants on the S&P 500 have spent more than $720 billion during the past year on stock buybacks. Media and entertainment firms account for only a fraction of that spending, but even $1 million spent on share repurchases seems a foolhardy expenditure at this transformational moment for the industry. The record level of spending [...]

  • Hollywood Has Come Far With Diversity

    An Insider's Look at Hollywood's Diversity Efforts and How Far It Still Needs to Go

    I am a white man working in Hollywood. I grew up in Beverlywood, an all-white, predominantly Jewish, Los Angeles neighborhood sandwiched between 20th Century Fox Studios and MGM, where my elementary school had only one black student. I am compelled to write about diversity in Hollywood because “diversity” — in front of and behind the camera [...]

  • Venice Film Festival A Star is

    How Venice, Toronto and Telluride Festivals Stole Cannes' Luster (Column)

    In all the years I’ve been attending film festivals, I have never seen a lineup that looked as good on paper as Venice’s did this fall, boasting new films by Alfonso Cuarón (“Roma”), Damien Chazelle (“First Man”), Paul Greengrass (“22 July”), Mike Leigh (“Peterloo”) and the Coen brothers (“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs”) in competition, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content